Technology Empowers Parents to Minimize the Word Gap

During an Annual Meeting session, experts discussed their efforts to increase the number of words heard by children in low-income households. | Ashley Gilleland/AAAS

BOSTON — Efforts to close the word gap — the vast difference in the number of words heard by children from low-income and higher-income homes — by working with the parents and caregivers of very young children have shown promising new results in the behavior of parents and children, according to three researchers at a Feb. 17 briefing at the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston.

The word gap is not just an educational issue — it is one of the most important public health problems, the researchers said. Children from low-income families are likely to hear 30 million fewer words than their peers from higher-income families, a deficit that can have far-reaching implications on educational achievement, health and economic status, said Alan Mendelsohn, associate professor of pediatrics and population health at the New York University School of Medicine.

To close the gap, the researchers are using technology that facilitates intervention early in the child’s life and empowers parents to play a very important role: “baby’s first and best teacher,” said Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, assistant professor and neonatal nurse practitioner at The George Washington University School of Nursing and director of infant research at its Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute.

One novel approach is akin to a Fitbit for language, said Caitlin Molina, executive director of Providence Talks, a program that aims to close the word gap citywide. The wearable “talk pedometer,” which is used in several Providence Talks programs, helps families monitor progress by tracking the number of words the child hears along with the number of “conversational turns”: the essential back-and-forth interactions between parent and child, Molina said. The device facilitates Providence Talks’ efforts to give parents and caregivers skills and strategies to build on these conversational turns, she said.

Among families who enter Providence Talks programs with daily word counts below the 50th percentile, results show that these children are hearing 44 percent more words after participation, Molina said. This represents real progress for many children, some of whom were hearing fewer than 6,000 words a day, well below the 19,000 to 21,000 words that researchers have said are optimal for brain development, she noted.

Early results also show that families maintain progress, Molina added, with 70% of families who have completed follow-ups maintaining word gains.

Talk to Me Baby, a public action campaign launched in the Atlanta metro area, also uses technology to encourage greater word use by parents, said Darcy-Mahoney. One facet of the campaign is a mobile app that sends parents reminders several times a week encouraging them to talk to their babies, Darcy-Mahoney said. Parents can earn “hearts” by talking about particular subjects like mealtime or bath time and can visualize their baby’s progress by checking off words that their baby has learned, she added.

Short-term results show that many of the families participating in the pilot test have implemented the strategies from the app notifications at least one to three times a day, most more than five times a day, Darcy-Mahoney noted.

Efforts to close the word gap are not just coaching parents – they are also reaching out to professions that work with very young children, the researchers said. For instance, Talk to Me Baby first enlisted nurses, who are trusted figures tasked with coaching new parents, to help normalize talking to a brand-new baby, Darcy-Mahoney said.

“When you’re in a labor and delivery room and you’re a nurse, the first thing you often tell the parents is ‘Congratulations!’” Darcy-Mahoney said. “Perhaps the next statement should be ‘Happy birthday, baby! Welcome to the world.’ That changes the paradigm of thinking for both the nurse and the parent. It doesn’t become this strange, odd thing to talk to this one-minute-old human.”

Talk to Me Baby’s partner program, Habláme Bebé, also optimizes parents’ behavior by promoting the use of their native or home language and encouraging bilingualism, Darcy-Mahoney added. “The child hears a much more robust, linguistically appropriate sentence structure when people use their home language,” she said.

Interventions have also shown effects beyond enriching parents’ use of words, Mendelsohn reported. A program called the Video Interaction Project has shown a reduction in hyperactivity in participating children. The project involves recording interactions between parents and children; a coach then reviews the tape with the parents and points out opportunities for improving communication with their children. The impacts continue two years after the program completion, he added.

“We have to prioritize language and talk for children and parent-child engagement,” Molina said. “This is the key to ensuring the success of our children.”

[Associated Image: Ashley Gilleland/AAAS]